(This article first appeared in the December 13, 2017 issue of The Independent Newspaper)
Sag Harbor resident and educator, Kristen Dehler recently completed her five-week course initiative, Beginning Mindfulness for Kids, a program at The John Jermain Memorial Library. Through the help of two middle school volunteers, Lyra and Ava, 13 children from Sag Harbor ranging in ages from seven to 10 years old participated in a free course that aimed at practicing gratitude and creating an overall selfawareness.
What is Mindfulness for Kids?
Mindfulness is defined as a specific way of paying attention in the present moment, non judgmentally.
The practice at any age of bringing awareness to each moment is simple and profound. It involves learning how to create greater self-awareness in our lives. As an educator, bringing this practice to young children in my classroom was something I began years ago. As a mom, it continued with my own children. When I talked with Cathy Creedon and Jaime Mott over The John Jermain Memorial Library they were on board and supportive in offering these classes to children.
How did you create the program? What made you decide to involve particular exercises and lessons over others?
The first thing I absolutely wanted the kids to learn about and study was their brain; How mindfulness can help the thinking part of their brain process the raw emotion of the limbic system. Understanding what is happening in our brain and body when we’re stressed, in a challenging situation or when we’re neutral, calm, joyful is so important to regulating emotions and choices. It’s an exciting time with neuroscience showing us brain changes in people who practice mindfulness.
For this series of classes, I chose practicing gratitude, mindful eating, breathing, seeing, and listening as mindfulness exercises. Through reading children’s books like Lemonade Hurricane and Peaceful Piggy Meditation and incorporating hands-on projects of glitter jars and mindful eating placemats, the kids could bring something tangible home each time as a meaningful reminder to practice the teachings.
Describe the progress from first class to the last class?
There was definitely a consciousness in launching this during a time of thanksgiving and the holiday season. Each class reinforced and built upon the one before it. In every class, we practiced an awareness of breathing because your breath is something that’s always with you. It’s why we use the breath to ground. For mindful eating, we did a raisin meditation and that’s always interesting because kids who are not fans of raisins will actually eat the raisin. Slowly. We looked closely at rocks and pine cones and followed sounds and chimes until they dissolved. We felt our feet and legs rooted to the ground by bringing awareness to different areas of the body.
In what specific ways, the most impactful ways, did you see a change?
I felt kids come into the room with a particular kind of energy, settle in, and sometimes leave in a different state. In the beginning, kids who found it challenging to sit still or to try closing their eyes, seemed to grow more comfortable with it. Other kids, some just seven years old, settled in right from the first class. That’s the beauty, the seed is already there. A teacher is there to help wake the seed, allowing it to sprout and grow.
Do you feel it should be longer than five sessions?
Some of the kids expressed that it “felt short,” and asked if we would have more. It’s a good start and if they’re practicing even one minute of stillness each day it’s better than no minutes of stillness. The hope is kids continue to experience these teachings through school and at home. I’d like to keep going with the classes because it takes practice to cultivate and embody this way of being.
Why is this important to children?
We tell kids to pay attention. We tell kids to calm down and focus. We don’t teach them how to do these things. We need to show them. Once a child is already upset is not the time to teach them these things.
Was there a lot of community feedback on the program?
There is a group of kids assembled for the next series at the library. People are curious. The library is a bustling place and after each class I had a few seconds of time to hear from a few parents that they were grateful for the class. That this was something so important. Most inquired about a class like this for adults. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who began The Mindfulness Based Stressed Reduction Clinic in 1979, has said this is not something that’s a luxury, it’s a radical act of kindness and sanity.
Being the first of its kind, will there be more sessions? If so, what ages and when will it begin?
Yes. I’m so thankful to our library for the opportunity to bring this to our kids. We are figuring out schedules and deadlines and how we can reach more of our kids and parents. I wish this existed when I was in middle school. I’d like to offer the teachings to some of the older kids. We’re looking at another kids class in February and an adult class in the Spring.
As a mother, what are you most thankful for in your children’s upbringing?
Thank you for this beautiful question. I love that we live in a place of astounding nature and that my husband, Kevin, had the foresight to bring our family to the east end.
The work that goes into raising aware, compassionate, and attentive human beings starts at home and is supported by our schools, libraries, and places of business.
Now, what what would you say is a societal disadvantage to children growing up today?
Children pick up on the nervous systems of the adults around them. We are, as a culture, addicted to stimulation and have become human doings, forgetting that we are human beings. Young people are suffering from higher rates of anxiety. There’s a paradox of kids experiencing so much so fast and then we see young adults emotionally and socially stinted.
Our greatest challenge is to do the work ourselves so we can be a model of what mindfulness looks like when we eat, listen to each other, and come into contact with the world. I believe every person is at their own stage of evolution and a lot of people are trying to shift from a default mode of mindlessness to presence.
It’s a muscle we build over time. Just as we can transform the body with exercise, we can build the muscle of attention and awareness.
Rather than wait until the next sessions in 2018, you can begin practicing your own sense of mindfulness right now. Dehler recommends Henepola Gunaratana’s, The Book Mindfulness in Plain English. For those more interested in a proactive approach, begin writing one thing you are grateful for each day and take three quiet moments to notice your breathing. Become aware during the idle times your hand reaches for the phone and consciously choose to leave it.
Look out for future mindfulness classes in the John Jermain Memorial Library newsletter. Sign up at http://www.johnjermain.org